All I have is hope that my 5 children will return to class

Ms Noreen Nassimbwa with her five children – Adam Ssenteza, Farouk Ssenteza, Lydia Ssenteza, Norah Kayemba, and Micheal Kayemba in Luwafu, Makindye, Kampala. Photo / Joan Salmon

What you need to know:

  • When the country announced lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 to curb the spread of Covid-19, the most affected were school-going children, many of them staying home for close to two years. In this fifteenth installment of our continuing series, Shattered Dreams, we narrate the story of a single mother who washes clothes to eke a living for her family. Despite giving it all to keep the children at school, the high cost of living has dampened the dreams. 

It has wreaked havoc in the lives of many and the effects are still far reaching. For many, their sources of income have vanished causing several setbacks in life, including the failure to take children back to school.

Ms Noreen Nassimbwa has suffered a similar setback brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic induced lockdown.

Small in stature, an early riser, and very hardworking are some of the ways one can describe Ms Nassimbwa. A resident of Luwafu, Makindye, Nassimbwa has washed clothes in many households, a job she started 13 years ago. With the earnings from this, she has raised, clothed, educated and catered for her five children – Adam Ssenteza, Farouk Ssenteza, Lydia Ssenteza, Norah Kayemba, and Micheal Kayemba. She shares her story about how the lockdown has in several ways disrupted her children’s education.

“When I started washing, my charges were as low as Shs1,000 per basin, so I did not get much. Nonetheless, the money had more value then, which made it possible to meet my children’s needs, unlike today. Additionally, before 2020, not all of them were in school, as only the three older children were studying. When the other two also started school, the burden to look for money became overwhelming.

“At first, the school fees was Shs250,000 per term and I was blessed that the headmaster whose school they attended since nursery allowed me to pay in bits. However, at one point, I had to move Adam and Farouk to another school which later increased their fees to Shs350,000. When the younger ones joined kindergarten, they were also paying Shs350,000. That increment really strained me because the most I can make in one day is Shs50,000 though that would require that I work from morning to evening, non-stop. After these many years at it, at the end of such a day, the veins hurt so badly that I have to sleep with the arms raised. My fingers also become numb and my back aches.

“When Covid-19 hit, matters got worse because the number of clients reduced. Thankfully, with time, as restrictions lessened, I started getting clients again, though the numbers grew slowly. However, at the moment, prices of commodities have skyrocketed so the money is not enough to pay school fees and take care of all their needs coupled with rent. That boxes us in a corner where we can only take care of the basic needs because even medical bills, should they arise, have not been easy to cater to. When schools reopened, it was impossible to take my sons that were joining S1 to school. A new level meant an increase in needs yet I did not have that money, let alone the starting school fees which are always higher than the usual. It was only the younger ones (Baby class, P1 and P5) that attended first term. Even then, they were unable to do the final exams because I had arrears.

Paternal help

“These children have two different fathers with the first one never fulfilling any promise to help. When they were starting school, the prior arrangement with him was that he buys school requirements while I pay the school fees. However, when the time came to take them to school, he was nowhere to be seen, leaving it all to me. Even when the boys were in P7 and I wanted to transfer them to a village school, he pledged to get me transport, but never came through. That foiled the plan because I had already exhausted my resources.

“The second one previously gave them money for lunch and break, but at the moment, he has no work. That said, when Nora got burnt, he helped us with paying the bill.

“When the boys finished P7, I reached out to our women councillor who had given me a bursary. However, the requirement was that I top up with Shs200,000 for each, but I failed to raise it. Moreover, I am still paying up an old debt where they studied for P7.

Children’s interest

“My children are very interested in studying and are always yearning to go to school. It was only when the boys were in P4 that I took them to their paternal village for holidays. While there, I was told by their father that they had been taken to boarding school, so I did not go to pick them up and bring them back home. However, I discovered that it was a lie when I was called and told that a snake had bitten one of them. They had spent a year away from home. From then on, I vowed to be with them regardless of the situation.

“I am particularly thankful for the headmaster that has been with my boys since nursery school. He has been very patient with me, even to take on Lydia. Despite the outstanding debt, I want to go back to him regarding the girl to see if we can work out something. That is also because I cannot afford to pay the fees for the younger ones have been.

“Moreover, that head teacher needs the money fast which oftentimes is hard for me to raise. The only issue with the former school is that I do not get the report cards, but they do the exams which works well for me.

Alternative work

“Before Covid struck, I made crafts as a supplementary job. I did this with another woman who had capital which eased it for me, seeing that I had none. She bought materials and also easily found market for the products in the villages. In my case, irrespective of the location she had got, I would join her after washing clothes to make the crafts.

“Earlier on, we had also got into a partnership with a client that needed waist beads and necklaces. However, that contract came to a halt because during lockdown, sales dropped significantly. To add salt to the wound, my financier passed on recently and since I had no money to push the business, I stayed washing clothes only.

“I have also tried women’s Saccos and in previous times, they buffered my earnings because apart from saving from as low as Shs2,000 a day, I could borrow. However, the onset of the lockdown messed it all up.

“At the moment, while there are health issues disturbing me, I have no alternative job in mind. So far, there has not been any job that can give me the same amount of money I get from washing. I also have no capital to invest in any source of income. Even if I got capital, it will not give back immediately as it is with washing because I am paid at the end of the day. That way, if I left no food at home, I am certain that I will buy it as I return.

“I had hope that I would do whatever it takes until they have reached university. That hope continues burning as I refuse to throw in the towel. I believe God will come through for me. If this year fails, I will try to ensure they resume next year.”

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